Naked City

Performance Anxiety

Planning director Dan Robertson disputes that AISD has a plethora of empty classrooms.
Planning director Dan Robertson disputes that AISD has a plethora of empty classrooms. (Photo By John Anderson)

Austin Independent School District officials were hardly shocked that the preliminary draft of the state comptroller's Texas Performance Review audit was harshly critical of the district's management of student records. Superintendent Pat Forgione has already set aside $15 million to upgrade AISD's information systems, and the issue has been discussed candidly at board meetings for months.

But another section of the report, which Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander has made available to the press before signing off on formal recommendations, did include some findings that evinced double takes from AISD data trackers. According to calculations by the comptroller's auditors, AISD has acquired far more classroom space than its current enrollment demands, using only 66% of the capacity available in its permanent and portable buildings. Auditors estimate that by the time the district finishes work on its 1996 bond construction program -- which will add more than 150 classrooms to existing campuses and open eight new elementaries, two middle schools, and one high school -- half of the available classroom space at some middle and high schools will go unused.

But AISD officials say the auditors calculated the district's building capacity with a simplistic formula that doesn't account for the variety of ways classrooms are used. "They're coming in at 30,000 feet, they're not getting down in the airboat and going through the swamp," says AISD director of Planning Services Dan Robertson.

Robertson says the comptroller's staff assumed that every classroom should have 24 desks full for six class periods to be counted at 100% capacity. Using that formula to derive total instructional capacity, then measuring against current enrollment, the audit estimates AISD's permanent facilities will be about 83% full upon completion of the bond program. And when capacity from portable structures is included, classroom usage falls below 70%. Elementaries are mostly full, the audit reports, but most of the district's 16 middle schools operate at 60% or less of capacity, and three high schools -- Reagan (59%), Travis (73%), and LBJ (73%) -- are underused.

Robertson says, however, that it's neither realistic nor educationally beneficial to expect classrooms to be filled to the brim every hour of the day. AISD assumes that each classroom will be empty at least one hour per day, he says, for teacher planning. Plus, district guidelines say that a specified number of music, arts, P.E., and other elective classes that don't necessarily draw 24 students at a time must be offered at each campus; and some rooms are also used for special programs such as reading recovery and health services.

Finally, Robertson maintains, limitations imposed by a campus' "core" facilities -- cafeterias, auditoriums, and science labs, for example -- are the factors that truly define capacity at elementary and middle schools, not how many desks can be fit in. Using such structural limitations as criteria, AISD estimates that most, though not all, of its schools are near or above capacity, with some campuses in the south (Bowie High and Bailey Middle School, for example) badly overcrowded. While the performance review lists AISD's total classroom capacity, including portables, at 117,120, the district says it has room for about 80,200 students. AISD's enrollment is currently 77,468, with projected enrollment next year at 78,498.

Officials with the comptroller's office won't comment on whether they'll revise their capacity numbers based on AISD's objections, saying only that the district's concerns will be taken into account before the official version of the review is released in April. Robertson says he doesn't know whether the performance review team intentionally or inadvertently used capacity figures different from AISD's, but either way, he says, it's a mistake. "They're an accounting firm," Robertson says of the comptroller's auditors. "They're not educators, so they're not familiar with the milieu."

Regardless of whose figures are most appropriate, the audit does highlight one logistical challenge AISD will face in the near future: Schools in the district's southern zones are filling quickly, while older high schools in the north, such as Reagan and LBJ, are emptying. Half of AISD's student population lives south of the Colorado River, where only a third of the district's classrooms are located.

"If we could pick up one of those schools [Reagan and LBJ] and put it in South Austin, that would be a better distribution in terms of capacity," notes Paul Turner, an AISD director of operations currently helping oversee the bond program. Older neighborhoods are maturing while the district scrambles to keep up with intense growth in the southwest, where AISD boundaries extend over 80 square miles west of Brodie Lane. That may bring talk of school closures to the district again, though the thrust of the comptroller's review seems to be aimed at eliminating portable buildings. AISD now employs 617 portable buildings, the report says -- enough to house one-third of its total enrollment and nearly three times as many per student than comparable districts use.

Robertson, however, says the space isn't going unused; many of the portables house students displaced by the bond improvements. The comptroller's auditors may "give people the impression there's empty space out there," he says, "but that's not true."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin Independent School District, CaroleKeeton Rylander, Texas Performance Review, Pat Forgione, Dan Robertson, school capacity, bond construction, Paul Turner

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